Yesterday morning I awoke to one of my favourite pieces of good news: new babies. Yes, more than one. My friend Lise had twins on the weekend and somehow she managed to keep it a secret from most of the free world. Twins is sort of a big deal. I’ve been privileged to watch family members embark on this crazy adventure more than once. This week, I wrote a little bit about my time last summer with a family who welcomed twins in addition to their three other children, six and under.
Over the past several months, I’ve talked to a lot of moms and dads about the complete exhaustion, exhilaration and chaos that happens when a baby is brought into a home where there are already a few small kids. But there is a level of crazy that you can’t quite quantify when you add twins(or more) to a household where diapers, tantrums, preschoolers, playtime, naptimes and playdates are already in full swing.
This post is about helping the parents of newborns who already have little kids at home. I’ve been the mom with 3 preschoolers at home bringing home a baby. This is about my experiences. This is also in reaction to things I’ve seen and heard with other parents. There are ways to help and there are ways NOT to help.
1. NEVER assume that parents of newborns have everything figured out. They don’t. Even if they have other kids, every newborn situation is different. And as much as parents want to be prepared, most of the time, they’re not. So be available.
2. Do not offer what you cannot give. I can’t begin to tell you how many people told me “just call- whatever you need, I’m available” and then when I called, they actually couldn’t help. Maybe about 10% of the time I had people follow through on their promise to “call whenever you need anything.” So don’t do that. Instead, be specific. If you can bring a meal over, say that. If you can bring a meal over on Tuesday of next week- say EXACTLY that. Leaving it up to new parents to figure out what you mean and when you mean it is too much work for them- honestly. They’re barely coherent and functioning- they need you to be specific.
3. DO NOT CALL or text or message continuously. I’m so glad there were no cell phones or Facebook or Twitter or even much for email when I had my kids. I could barely keep up with contacting immediate family when my babies were born let alone manage everyone else. Especially when a mom to be goes into the hospital, be very conscious of the fact that she has much more important things to do than message you back. The day that the twins were being born last September, I was awakened at 5 a.m. I saw Mommy and Daddy off to the hospital and dealt with morning routine, school, playtime and lunch before I heard a peep. People were messaging me non-stop. They wanted to know news. They wanted updates. I had none. Did I want to send a quick text to Daddy? Yes. Did I? Nope. He was well aware where I was and what was going on. I didn’t hear from him until early afternoon and the babies were already a couple hours old at that point. As much as you may want to know what the latest news is, be respectful and be patient. It’s hard! But do it anyway. Same goes for after the parents come home. If you have been clear about your availability to help, leave it at that for a few days. Sleep is scarce the first couple weeks and visitors, constant calls and texts only add to the exhaustion.
4. Do not just drop in. The excitement of new babies is contagious. It is so hard to stay away when your friends or family have had a baby (or babies!) but you need to give them time to adjust to home. If you MUST drop off a gift or a meal or even groceries, then you need to let them know you’re on your way and that you will not be staying. Drop off the items, give a hug and leave. Do not presume to stay. Do not take off your shoes or coat. Do not expect to be served or entertained. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen people drop in, decide to stay indefinitely, have no regard for how tired the parents are, stay through feedings(which are cumbersome, awkward and often lengthy the first while) and stay through naptime. Hint: if the baby(babies) are sleeping, then mommy and daddy should be sleeping too.
5. If you visit, plan to help. So let’s say you’ve been invited, you’ve made plans, it’s all good and you’re dropping in on the family. Do not come to be entertained. Your job is to help. Do the dishes, do some laundry, play with the other kids, help with bathtime/bedtime, make a meal, clean up a meal, take out the trash, take out the recycling, clean out the fridge, sweep, vacuum, wash counters, …..these are ALL things that new parents are often too tired to do, won’t have done for a while or just don’t have time for.
6. Do NOT drop off your used clothing. This is a big no-no. Once upon a time, we lived in a time when clothes were not as accessible or economical as they are now. Most parents have an abundance of clothes from their previous children. It is rare for parents of newborns to need or even want your leftovers. You may have adorable, well cared for clothes, but if they’re not needed then they become work. Imagine bringing home your two precious babes to a house where you have 2 or 3 other children and someone drops off 2 or 3 or 4 GARBAGE BAGS full of clothes. You would cry. Yes you would. Well, I did. I cried a lot. Not in front of the givers, but afterwards. Bags full of clothes are great if needed and asked for. They are just painfully unwanted when you’re exhausted and have no time or space to deal with them. Ask first and don’t feel offended if the answer is “thanks, but no thanks”. Most parents simply cannot deal with sorting through more clothes than they need.
7. There’s such a thing as a bad gift. If you are going to donate clothes, make sure they’re clean, in good repair and sorted into sizes. There was a time, when we were poor, and we had our first baby where we had maybe 4 sleepers total. And someone in our family gave us a bag of baby clothes and receiving blankets which should have been a blessing. But it was a curse. You can say a lot in what you give. If it really is ‘the thought that counts’ then make sure you’re thinking about how your gift will be received. The bag of clothes we were given was 95% formula stained, ripped, stretched, too old to be anything but rags. I cried. I needed clothes. But I didn’t need that. It was horrible. And I will tell you that *gifts* like this will actually put a wall up between the giver and the recipient. I was gracious but the relationship was awkward and distant. Make sure you give in such a way to bless and be of help. In the same vein, giving food gifts that require a lot of preparation or fussy care are not helpful. If you make a meal, make it simple, tasty, able to be frozen, placed into disposable containers(or containers that can be kept.). Anytime a family has to chase down the owners of dishes, it makes the gift of food more work. One more note about food gifts: they are THE BEST but be careful not to put your dietary likes above the recipients’. If you are a vegetarian but the new family is not, consider their tastes. If you like quinoa and lentils but the new family never eats them, that could make for a bad food gift. Consideration is key.
8. Baby holders aren’t as needed as you might think. I know a lot of people get excited(me included) when a new baby comes into the world because we all just want to hold it. I’m one of those people who will take the baby and not return it. I will not share. I’m a baby hoarder. I love their smell and their soft little squishy bodies perched in my arms. Give me babies!! Okay, wait. What was I saying? Right….ummmm…..I was the mom who wanted to hold her own baby. All the time. I loved my babies and they grew too fast. Yes, I was proud to show them off..for like 5 minutes. But really, I wanted to hold my babies more than anyone else. Moms get exhausted. And sometimes they need a break…but just little breaks. If a mom has other kids and she wants to spend time with them, maybe a baby holder is necessary. With twins or multiples, there may be more times needed in soothing one while the other is fed but early on, that is not as likely to happen. Be very aware that some moms like their babies in a crib during naptime to get them into a routine. Holding a baby for an hour or two between feedings is rarely helpful to a new mom. Sorry baby huggers! I feel your pain! Just short holding sessions, mmm ‘k? 🙂
9. Do NOT bring your sick or wild or hyper or needy children for a visit. This is a tough one. If you’re a mom and a friend of the new mom, it is very natural to want to bring your kids over to see the new baby(ies). But sometimes more kids is just too much. Germs, tantrums, unexpected attitudes can all make for a louder, frustrating visit. Usually, siblings of a new baby are wanting more attention and will be struggling without the addition of extra kids wanting to play with their toys. Be sensitive to the situation. And under no circumstance should sick, snotty, feverish, kids or adults come into a home where there is a new baby. Ever.
10. Helping with older kids should be done as needed in their own home. The upheaval of having mommy gone for a few days or weeks and seeing people come and go can be very difficult on little kids. If you want to help care for the siblings of newborns, as much as possible do it in their own home. Consistency is so important for little kids. Do not offer to take the kids to your home if you cannot pick them up and drop them off. Asking new parents to arrange to drop off their kids at your house is not very convenient. Of course there are exceptions but anytime you can make life easier on the new exhausted, overwhelmed parents is the preferred method.
11. Twins(multiples) and Bedrest: Sometimes moving in is the best way to help. I have fibromyalgia, I’m in my forties and I am NOT a morning person. I told all these things to our family members before coming to live with them for 5 weeks. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t help. I promised the kids would be fed and cared for. I didn’t promise a spotless house or gourmet meals. We managed and everyone survived! I will say that it helped that my family was not in the same city. I could dedicate all of my time to the little ones and the care of the home without distraction. It ended up being MORE relaxing than being home with my four teenagers. Go figure! The key is this: stuff happens and if mama or daddy need help NOW, you’re there. Also, this definitely works best when you have a good relationship with both parents. Their rules, their house, their routine…be flexible and roll with it.
12. Do not place an expiry on your availability. It’s often easy to assume that parents of newborns only need help the first month. But in reality, it gets harder over the course of the first couple years. When newborns sleep mostly and only wake for feedings, new parents need help watching their other kids so they can sleep. As soon as the baby(ies) are waking more, the need for help falls over into managing and watching all of the kids. If babies are born prematurely, their newborn phase lasts longer. This can be cute to those of us on the outside looking in, but for a new mom who’s nursing or waking multiple times in the night, this is just prolonging her exhausted phase. By the time babies reach 3 or 4 months, there may be even more need for help to come in daily to do routine household chores and care for older children as well as the babies. Rotating with friends and neighbours is a great way to cover a family over the course of a week. Once babies are nearing a year……walking, talking, solid foods plus school and schedules for older siblings can render a mom almost zombie-like. Swoop in and give her a break whenever you can. It may be only a short season of life but for her in that moment it feels never ending.
13. Be the friend who knows just what Mom needs. Sometimes we have to be creative and spontaneous. We also need to put ourselves into the shoes of an overwhelmed, overtired mom of multiple small children. If you are out and buying coffee for yourself, grab a 2nd cup…drive to her house, knock(gently), hand her the java, give her a hug and drive away. You don’t need to stay long or do a lot to let her know that you’re thinking of her and have her back. Remember what I said about not overstaying your welcome? Ya well, don’t, but dropping in with a saving cup of caffeine, lunch for the kiddos or a 30 minute stop so she can shower is worth its weight in gold. Trust me.
14. Ask. When all else fails, ask what is needed. Do they need someone to pick up kids from the bus stop? Do they need a sitter for an evening? Do they need someone to drive to and from the hospital while babies are in the NICU? Do they need gas cards or money for hospital parking passes? It’s amazing how all of these things add up. If the new parents are too overwhelmed to know what is needed in that moment, tell them to text or call if they think of something and then let them know you’ll check back in a couple of days. And then do.
The point in all of this is to be thoughtful, empathetic and available. It’s very easy to go buy cutsie little outfits when a baby is born but what parents of newborns really need is physical, tangible, practical help.
What are some of your good and bad experiences when you had your babies? Were there some gifts/givers who nailed it? Were there some people who tried to help but maybe made things worse? I’m guilty of calling too often, holding the babies too long, and dropping off bag fulls of unwanted clothes. I’m preaching to myself in all of this too!